It is no big revelation to recognize that the churning dysfunctions of American politics are bound to affect American foreign and national security policies, and with them the rest of the world in one way or another. This is because the United States is no ordinary country. It is very big, very wealthy, very powerful, and very attention-arresting as a model of public life—whether its core principles of Enlightenment-born liberalism, its tendency to anti-hierarchical egalitarianism, its secularism-nested multiculturalist reality, or all of the above as a package deal. These characteristics are indelible and irrepressible ideological lightning rods, taken separately or especially together—as aspirational to some, mortal threats to others. No one, however, knows how to ignore them.
As important, America’s imprimatur on the current global order, or what still passes for it, has been second-to-none since the end of World War II. It has not only affected nearly every aspect of global security through its grand strategy of providing common security goods and suppressing both regional security competitions and arms races, it has also been responsible as primus inter pares for shaping the global commercial/trading system and influencing, for better and probably also otherwise, the world’s emerging globe-spanning cultural mélange. The U.S. record over the past 75 years is hardly perfect, but by historical measure—history being Hegel’s “butcher’s block”—it’s arguably not that bad.
The great drama of Donald Trump’s impeachment by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and his summary acquittal by the Republican-controlled Senate affects all of this, both by way of prospective policy outputs (or the lack thereof) and by means of images and optics. It’s not the only causal factor pressing on the future, and how significant an inflection point it turns out to be in its own right is for the fickle future to determine. To say that the matter is both complex and capacious, and therefore hard to predict, is an understatement—sort of like describing a California redwood as “kind of large.” Even so, several broad implications can already be discerned.
The beginning of wisdom here is to understand that nearly everyone involved in the impeachment affair and its several neuralgic outcroppings—the Republican and Democratic Parties, the mainstream media, the FBI, the Justice Department, and one could go on—has behaved badly. In some cases, very badly.
Republican Senators, without notable exception, knew privately that President Trump had done unconscionably bad things. Some even said so publicly. Most understood that a Senate impeachment trial is a political and not a strictly legal proceeding, as the Founders intended, and that “high crimes and misdemeanors” is a deliberately ambiguous, hence flexible, phrase that is not subsumed by all categories of technically criminal behavior. They also knew perfectly well that no previous Administration had accepted, let alone directly solicited, the assistance of a foreign power to interfere in American democratic processes in favor of one side.
And in the end, they didn’t care, partly because the mainstream media expended little to no effort to arm the people with these basic and damning facts. The mainstream commercial media still refuses to take responsibility for their clickbait-propelled aid to Trump from the get-go. They remain set on exploiting the culture’s spectacle-besotted, circus-like “believe it or not” febrility, all for the sake of gaining and holding market share. In that effort, bloodsport-worthy entertainment always takes pride of place over facts and analysis, as also increasingly befits a reading public whose literacy habits are fast eroding thanks to the rising specter of cyber-addiction. That facilitates officeholders, Democrats as well as Republicans, putting fables ahead of truth, banal slogans and sound-bytes ahead of substance, vitriol ahead of reason, partisan politics ahead of their oaths, and narrow self-interest ahead of any reasonable definition of patriotism—meaning only some sense, any sense, of responsibility to the commonweal.
That is also why all but a few Republican Senators voted against taking testimony in the Senate trial, because they knew such testimony would injure the President’s political position, and that theirs, in turn, would be assaulted by him. “The concessions of the weak are the concessions of fear,” wrote Edmund Burke, and, added Elena Bonner, “Fear gives bad advice.” So it does. In this case, Senators’ concessions to the White House took the form of willful lying and lying and more lying, and the White House sought to make sure of the outcome by hiring Alan Dershowitz to knowingly lie as well, which to his everlasting shame he did.
Jonathan Chait aptly summed up the meaning of all this before the vote in a January 22 New York Magazine essay:
The impeachment trial is an exercise in displaying the Republican Party’s institutional culpability in Trump’s contempt for the rule of law. At some point they will have to decide to damn the president or to damn themselves.
We now know what all of them, save for Mitt Romney, decided. With the February 6 acquittal, the Republicans Senators have actively aligned themselves with—indeed, have imprisoned themselves in—Trump’s mafia ethos. Except for Romney, they have reduced themselves to political eunuchs who, having once crossed the red lines of constitutional corruption, will never find their way back. They will sooner or later be asked again to debase their office to allow, enable, endorse, or support the suborning of the rule of law, and most will comply. Each subsequent demand on them, no matter how outrageous, will evoke less and less resistance.
They have thus destroyed the GOP’s clinging claim to ethical legitimacy. With their vote, the Party of Lincoln, already deeply ill, is now no more. What will now follow it is clear only in its likely ugliness, as a newly buoyed movement for “national conservatism”—a frightening amalgam of partly justifiable anti-globalist realism doused heavily with delusional nostalgia and outright bigotry—vies to replace America’s decaying civic nationalism with a “dirty white” shade of heretofore highly marginal, pretender ethnonationalism.
Worse, the Republican Senate, and most of the rest of the Party with it, is also complicit in defining political deviancy down well into the future. Future Presidents will inherit a much lower bar for malfeasance in office. Meanwhile, Trump is now free to lie and cheat without fear of consequences as the November election approaches, and with his personal history, it would be strange if he did not avail himself of his new opportunities. He figures to become a very different kind of Prometheus unbound.
Finally, in this regard, the power of the presidency relative to the Legislative and Judicial Branches (Chief Justice John Roberts looked like a potted plant at the Senate trial rather than its master) will increase, harming the structural edifice of the separation of powers. Trump’s authoritarian instincts have mainly harmed liberalism up to now, but liberalism and democracy, while twinned in the American experience and mind, are not the same. They have different histories and separate ontologies. The Trump White House is now indeed seeking to envelop and sever key sinews of democracy, of which the increasing politicization of the Justice Department, at full gallop since February 5, is a darkening shadow.
It is a figment of childish innocence to think that if one side in a competition is bad, the other side must be good. Alas, the Democrats may be relatively less dangerous to American norms and principles, but their divisions and bad judgment do not render them admirable. Being merely incompetent as opposed to immoral doesn’t make them good any more than the proverbial two wrongs make a right.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tried, starting in January 2019 as the current Congress began its tenure after the mid-term election, to fob off impeachment pressures. The daughter of a former Mayor of Baltimore, Maryland, no one had to teach her how street politics-cum-mud-fighting actually works. She sensed that an impeachment ordeal so close to the run-up of the November 2020 election could backfire when it predictably fell far short of ousting the President from office.
But she failed, partly because of the power of the Party’s left wing, which considered Pelosi et al. the near enemy, and Trump and the GOP the far enemy. She failed, too, perhaps because the President actually wanted to be impeached (but not convicted) for his political purposes. The President’s claim that the impeachment ordeal put him “through hell” is not persuasive, unless he was merely referring to an introductory trip through the neighborhood where he will spend eternity. Sure enough: Now, in the denouement of the impeachment affair, Trump’s approval rating among Republicans is at a record high. As for the Democrats, they are attacking each other even as they awkwardly lurch to the left, ending up possibly beyond the ambit of electoral viability come November 3.
Certainly, the December 9 release of Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report on the egregious malfeasance of the FBI in investigating the Trump campaign did not help, coming just nine days before the House impeached the President. The White House and its supporters spun the timely report in such a way as to vindicate claims that the investigation itself was politically motivated by the “deep state” and had no basis in reality. That is not so, of course. But as is generally the case in conspiracy-addled minds, that conclusion translated for many into the validation of other baseless, deliberately invented claims: that the Obama White House “spied” on the Trump campaign; that Ukraine hacked the November 2016 election in favor of Hillary Clinton instead of the Russians in favor of Trump; and so on.
The rattled Democrats are now making new mistakes in the aftermath—for example, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer’s call for investigating Trump’s dismissal of Col. Alex Vindman from the NSC and Gordon Sondland from his post as Ambassador to NATO. Again we see partisan politics placed above respect for law and norms, this time by the Democrats.
Vindman, like everyone at the NSC, works for the only two men who got elected to the Executive Branch: the President and the Vice-President (and the Vice-President doesn’t really count). That’s how American democracy works, and everyone involved knows it—or certainly ought to. So when Vindman decided to jeopardize the President’s office—whether for justifiable reasons or not is beside the point—he should have been prepared to resign his post within 24 hours of acquittal, it being clearer than an unmuddied lake that doing so would put him well beyond the President’s confidence. The same goes for Sondland, for all ambassadors serve at the pleasure of the President. Both men acted dishonorably for making the President fire them.
Claims that the President’s actions are illegal are, as Jeremy Bentham might have put it, nonsense on stilts. The 1946 APA (Administrative Procedures Act) does not apply to those personally working for the President, only to those working for Executive Branch departments and federally chartered agencies. Schumer’s feckless vindictiveness will ultimately play to Trump’s advantage. Indeed, it already is: His ploy draws attention away from Trump’s firing of Vindman’s blameless brother Eugene, which is about as vivid a display of Trump’s gangster mentality as one could ask for.
In sum, acquittal via a sham, summary trial has defined presidential deviancy down, harmed the structure of the separation of powers, and made a mockery of the rule of law. But the generic problem did not arise just yesterday or even three years ago. It has been metastasizing slowly, even before Donald Trump’s election as President. But the impeachment debacle lays the underlying dysfunction bare and threatens credibly to accelerate it, like a dam breaking before a storm surge invites the deluge.
But what does the impeachment episode mean for the world?
First, the U.S. brand, its “soft power” with it, has now been impaled for all to see on the boundless ego of a demagogic aspirant and his spineless sycophants who call him their “chosen one.” To the extent that America was ever, as Lincoln said, “the last best hope for mankind” or, as Governor Winthrop famously put it, “a city on a hill,” the hope is fading as the lights in the city go out one by one.
More practically and immediately, it means that the head-in-the-sand inward turn of America, away from the wider world and away from the responsibilities its power ordains, will now accelerate. So will the mindlessness of recent “debates.” Splenetic politics has so enveloped everything it touches that foreign and national security policy issues no longer even rate a mention—a clear sign of present-tense amnesia concerning the rest of the planet. All higher-level policy formulation is now likely to cease unless provoked by unexpected crises. Ongoing policy implementation, mostly at lower levels, is on autopilot wherever and whenever the White House avoids tampering with it. It loses energy daily without direction from above.
Case in point: All discussion of policy toward Ukraine is now drowned in the morass of the aid holdup affair and the infamous July 25 Trump-Zelensky phone call. No member of the political class, or the Fourth Estate, even bothers to ask whether the policy of supplying lethal aid to Ukraine is actually a good idea. Worse, no one ventures a public thought about what it would take for American diplomacy to help fix the problem that caused the Russo-Ukrainian mini-war in the first place. Gone are the days, not so long past, when Henry Kissinger and the late Zbigniew Brzezinski both warned against pursuing the policy currently in place and offered constructive suggestions for a deeper resolution.
Another case in point: The so-called Middle East peace “deal of the century” was promulgated when it was promulgated entirely for reasons of politics—Trump’s politics of diversion and pandering to American Jewish campaign largesse, and by extension Netanyahu’s politics of desperation. Not only is the plan a non-starter for any practical purpose, it erodes past partial Israeli-Palestinian understandings in escrow, jeopardizes Israeli-PA security cooperation, encourages irretrievably harmful Israeli overextension (read: annexation of the Jordan Valley, and maybe more), jeopardizes the Hashemite Kingdom and the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, and at least marginally reduces Arab normalization energies with regard to Israel. No one involved in this toxic abortion seems to care, even assuming they understand any of this.
Yet another case in point: Former Senator Sam Brownback, now in charge of the Trump Administration’s Religious Freedom Alliance (RFA), met with the Taiwanese Vice-President-elect William Lai on February 5 in Washington. That made him the highest-ranking Taiwanese official to visit Washington in more than four decades. China’s response? A PLAAF run at Taiwan’s air-defense perimeter, causing the Taiwanese air force to scramble jet fighters. Were it not for the coronavirus problem, the Chinese government no doubt would have played this into a major international crisis in expectation of the U.S. side backing down. As it turned out, so acute is Trump’s risk-aversion that Beijing didn’t even need to do that. The State Department’s response to the jet feint? To exclude Taiwan from the RFA, in which it had been a planning partner from the start.
As this example illustrates, the Interagency-White House process nexus is in tatters. More generally, with Mike Pompeo having willingly entrapped himself in Trump’s gangster White House extravaganza, the budget-garroted State Department has now become almost completely dysfunctional. As a result, neither friend nor foe can tell anymore whether U.S. policy is coming or going, or whether it exists at all. This isn’t an entirely new condition, but the impeachment debacle has made it worse and so newly dangerous.
For people, parties, movements, and governments everywhere on this planet who sincerely care about human freedom, human rights, human dignity, and mutual toleration—and the basic decency and integrity of political life—this is not good news. Only magical thinkers believe that values and virtues can persist against opposition in the absence of sustaining power and resolve. In the absence of American power, resolve, and yes, even its example up on that hill, hyenas will ramble, and the wild dogs will sooner or later find their prey.
So it is really over? Is America over as the world’s beacon of liberty, protector of virtue, guardian of the weak? Is there no way back? No one knows, yet. But perhaps heed this description:
. . . . Then come impeachments and judgments and trials of one another. The people have always some champion whom they set over them and nurse into greatness. This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears above ground he is a protector. . . .having a mob entirely at his disposal . . . .
Recognize that language? No? You did not realize that Socrates, in Book VIII of The Republic, explicitly refers to impeachments and trials, and to what they portend for a decaying democracy? Now you do. Read it, go read it all—and then decide for yourself whether to weep or to see clear-eyed the peril for what it is. For now that impeachment is over and its proceedings rest in the archives, the worst of the peril is yet to come—for America, and not only for America.